A year ago, at this time, everyone was speculating about how Beijing would react to the massive demonstrations. They began small and peaceful, in April and May, and then erupted into the largest street protests Hong Kong had ever seen. By August the protests had turned destructive and violent, pitting protesters and police against each other on the frontlines, where city streets had become urban battlegrounds

The initial provocation was an extradition bill that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam tried to force through a reluctant Legislative Council. By August protesters’ demands had evolved to encompass all the accumulated political grievances that had sustained Hong Kong’s democracy movement since its earliest days in the 1980s.

Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

The provocation: Promises redefined, expectations dashed

Universal suffrage was the issue that sparked the last major protest upsurge, in 2014, and was among the promises Beijing had made to Hong Kong ahead of its 1997 return to Chinese rule. Yet one by one the promises were redefined, and the redefinitions disguised in subtle wordplays. The words remained unchanged, but the official definitions always managed to signify outcomes that mirrored their mainland equivalents.

Free speech was free — depending on who was saying what. Universal suffrage meant essentially what it means across the border, where Communist Party officials decide who can run for office and who can win. 

The problem here is that the party’s surrogates can only presume to speak for under half the voting public. The majority have used the decades since Beijing’s promises were made, in the 1980s and l990s, to begin creating the political way of life they thought they had been promised. Yet with every redefinition, Beijing seemed to be trying to ease Hong Kong into the mainland system. 

Banner reads: “CCP has no shame.” Photo: May James/HKFP.

Such impositions are not likely to go down well with people who thought they had been promised otherwise. They were told repeatedly before 1997 that the overhaul imposed on Chinese society after the 1949 communist takeover would not apply to them.

To discover otherwise, even if only with respect to Leninist remnants of that old revolutionary system, has produced a kind of shock in slow motion. It culminated in Beijing’s 2014 ultimatum on universal suffrage, compounded by Carrie Lam’s 2019 extradition law that was set to breach the barrier erected in 1997 between the Hong Kong and mainland judicial systems.

Predictions gone wrong

Beijing’s response to last year’s turmoil was slow in coming. So slow that onlookers had plenty of time to speculate. As it turned out, our speculations were mostly all wrong because we were not taking any cues from the pro-Beijing loyalist minority in our midst. One favorite prediction was that Beijing decision-makers would surely depose Carrie Lam at the earliest opportunity– much as they did with Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa. He retired midway through his second four-year term, ostensibly for health reasons.

Still, deposing Carrie Lam would be more awkward. She was only mid-way through her first term when she miscalculated, thinking she had defeated the resistance, and went ahead with the extradition bill – by all accounts on her own initiative.  She also appeared to be in the best of health.  

But surely Beijing officials could find a way. Even they must realize that someone so tone deaf to popular concerns should not remain the occupant of Hong Kong’s highest office. She’ll be gone by Christmas, said the pundits. Or more likely after the Lunar New Year holiday, or the annual National People’s Congress meetings in March.

Another common view was that at least Beijing would not persist in trying to force the Hong Kong government to do its constitutional duty by passing national security legislation.  Pro-Beijing opinion leaders were constantly calling for such legislation as mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law constitution.

Jiang Zemin and ex-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Photo: GovHK.

Tung Chee-hwa had fallen afoul of this assignment. He had tried his best, but the legislation was withdrawn after half-a-million people joined a protest march on July 1, 2003. With several times that number turning out, repeatedly, to protest Carrie Lam’s extradition bill, Beijing would surely not risk more turmoil by forcing the issue any time soon.

But the annual meetings were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And today, Carrie Lam stands strong and confident, no longer hesitating to dismiss critical questions with answers that seem to come straight from Beijing briefing books. Unthinkable as it might have been just months ago,  pro-Beijing opinion leaders are now discussing the prospect of a second term for Carrie Lam, to begin in 2022.

Even worse, the much-feared Article 23 legislation has been imposed in far more dangerous form than the original 2003 bill.  A political shadow has fallen over the city, as if to match the health alerts that have kept its economic and social life in retreat since the first wave of Covid-19 arrived in February.

A law for everyone, not just the very few

The fact that national leaders in Beijing had decided to solve their Hong Kong problem by imposing a national security law was only announced in late May. Legislative formalities were completed within a month and the law was promulgated in Beijing on June 30. It went into effect in Hong Kong the same day.

Such haste was due not only to the political disarray in Hong Kong but to the date itself. July 1 has special significance as the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer from British to Chinese rule, and of the 2003 mass march against a security law.

Photo: Tam Ming Keung/United Social Press.

The timing was a deliberate reminder that Beijing had won this argument and was determined to impose its will regardless.

The sweeping nature of the new law carried the same message. It was, as Beijing promoters kept saying, “tailor-made” for Hong Kong. In fact, the law was tailor-made to put an end to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest movement that had grown from only a few thousand activists in the 1980s, to include a majority of Hong Kong’s voting public. 

The tailor-made message initially seemed aimed at quieting concerns about imposing a mainland law on Hong Kong’s independent judicial system. Even more deceptive was the constant refrain throughout the month of June that worries were unnecessary because the law would target only a very small number of wrongdoers. Everyone else would remain free to carry on as usual.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Such pre-launch assurances were typical of rectification campaigns in revolutionary days gone by. Routines began low-key before building to an all-encompassing crescendo. Here and now, the “very few” initial targets are demonstration models to serve as examples for everyone else.  

It is true that so far, only a few have been formally charged. A young man was arrested under the new law for waving a Hong Kong independence flag on July 1. He has so far not been granted bail because the new law states that bail is not allowed unless there is evidence to suggest the accused will not reoffend.

Arrest warrants have been issued for six overseas activists, including former Legislative Councillor Nathan Law, who is now in London. The new law is not retroactive. The six are accused of carrying on as usual with their alleged secessionist lobbying activities after the law was promulgated on June 30. Plus, four young people have been arrested for posting independence messages online after July 1. Hardly the stuff of a city-wide counter-insurgency crackdown. 

But that is not the beginning and end of it. The mandate as stated in Chapter one, Article One of the new law is to prevent, suppress, and punish the offences of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. The prevention phase is now underway, having got off to a fast start. Its most visible targets concern the freedom of political expression that Hongkongers value, second only to their independent judiciary.

Library books and teaching materials

Soon after the law was promulgated, in early July, the public library system took several titles out of circulation. The authors are Hong Kong’s most famous activist Joshua Wong, Civic Party legislator Tanya Chan and localist author Horace Chin. The books were reportedly being reviewed for suspect content following passage of the law.

Photo: Penguin Books.

The law does not define the nature of the crimes it proscribes. Nor did the library indicate why those authors were targeted for review and not others. Evidently, the inspectors have not yet completed their task. But in the meantime, titles have also been removed from school libraries and changes are being introduced in school teaching materials as well.

Voluntary screening recommended by the education authorities in deference to the new law led publishers of Hong Kong’s liberal studies textbooks to remove the term “separation of powers” from material on different forms of government.

The separation of powers has become an issue in arguments over the Hong Kong executive’s overriding authority, and the legislature’s subordination thereto. Beijing insisted on maintaining Hong Kong’s colonial tradition of “executive-led “government and it likes to reject demands for democratic reform which threaten this governing principle. Also among the revisions and deletions was material on “civil disobedience,” amended to emphasize its illegality.

Liberal studies itself is a new compulsory course for senior secondary level students, introduced in 2009. The idea was to promote critical thinking and a wider knowledge of contemporary issues. But pro-Beijing voices are often raised in protest at the free-ranging liberal nature of this course, and have been calling for its abolition. Critics include former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. They blame the course for drawing young people ‘s interest to Hong Kong’s protest movement and see significance in the timing.

Photo: via discuss.com.hk.

The course was introduced in 2009, around the time when ideas about Hong Kong as an autonomous city state began circulating. Such ideas are actually associated with the writings of an author from an older generation, Horace Chin, whose books are among those currently being inspected by librarians for suspect content. Ideas about autonomy were only a short step away from independence and by 2016, young people had begun to explore the possibilities. So, abolition of the course makes perfect sense.

Election candidates

This preventive blow came when the Hong Kong government’s Home Affairs Department vetting officers disqualified 12 of the democrats’ top-tier Legislative Council election candidates at one fell swoop. They were disqualified for actions undertaken before the law was passed, such as lobbying foreign governments to bring pressure to bear on Hong Kong over human rights and democracy issues.

But vetting officers detected no sense of remorse among the candidates and judged insincere their promises to cease and desist. The election, originally scheduled to take place on September 6, has been postponed, officially due to Hong Kong’s third wave of Covid-19 cases.

Radio Television Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, RTHK, is wholly funded by the government and as such has long been in Beijing’s sights. From its perspective, government funding for a media organization without direct government oversight is an alien concept — akin to editorial independence. RTHK is formally under the Hong Kong government’s Bureau of Commerce and Economic Development.

In lieu of direct, hands-on oversight, local pro-Beijing partisans have tried to do what they see as their patriotic duty by keeping a watchful eye on the liberal leanings of RTHK broadcast staff. There has been much to complain about.

Earlier this year, broadcast management was severely criticized and reprimanded by its boss, the Secretary for Commerce. One of the RTHK reporters had asked a guest from the World Health Organization if it would consider allowing Taiwan to join —  a major political faux pas. The guest declined to answer the question.

It showed the reporter had not been properly briefed on Beijing’s determination to prevent Taiwan from having any presence in any international organization as an independently governed entity. This is because in Beijing’s eyes, Taiwan is a breakaway province waiting to be reunited with the Motherland under the same One Country, Two Systems governing formula that Hong Kong and Macau enjoys.

RTHK management was reprimanded by the Secretary for Commerce on the grounds that the  reporter’s question violated the One country, Two Systems principle which all Hong Kong government bodies are bound to uphold.

In another major flare-up, a popular satirical show was dropped after an episode was found to have gone too far in mocking police behavior during the street protests. Most recently, a programme was dropped because it featured activist Nathan Law, now regarded as a fugitive from justice after a warrant was issued for his arrest under the new security law.

RTHK’s Headliner has received complaints after airing a controversial episode. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

 A government review of the broadcaster’s operations was begun in mid-July. A month later, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a major shake-up for its advisory board watchdog, with three new appointments. The new chairman is a pro-establishment figure with strong Beijing credentials. He and a second new board member have been or are appointees to Beijing’s national united front honorary body known as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) that gathers annually during National People’s Congress meetings. Local standing and political loyalty are prerequisites for appointment to this body.

Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily

Of all the events since the law was passed, however, the most dramatic development was the elaborately-staged August 10 police raid at Apple Daily, and the arrest of its owner Jimmy Lai Chee-ying. He was taken into custody at his home and then taken to his Next Media headquarters where he was made to do the “perp walk” in handcuffs through the newsroom, while a 200-strong raiding party from the new police national security unit collected evidence.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Arrested at the same time were his two sons and four senior executives from his media organization. The charges against them are wide-ranging and include money laundering, conspiracy to defraud, and an overseas bank account used to channel funds to an overseas “gang” engaged in lobbying foreign governments on behalf of human rights concerns here.

The overseas group is well-known here. Its English name is Stand With Hong Kong, formed last year at the height of the protest demonstrations when it organized a successful international crowd funding and advertising campaign. The group now has ties to the All-Party Parliamentary Group in London that sees the issue of human rights violations in Hong Kong as a legitimate British concern. Colluding with foreign forces is the principal blanket charge against those arrested here.

Three others — local members of the overseas group — were arrested later that same day as part of the same case. They included popular activist Agnes Chow, one of the original members of Joshua Wong’s youth-led now disbanded political party, Demosisto.

Jimmy Lai (centre).

In recent years, when pressed for the reasons behind Bejing’s constant accusations, loyalists would follow the main Beijing story line and explain that Hong Kong’s political disorders would not exist but for the machinations of the British and American consulates here — and Jimmy Lai.

As this story goes, Lai does the foreigners’ bidding, funnels cash to protesters, paid them to occupy the streets in 2014, underwrites democrats’ election campaigns, provided the wherewithal for demonstrators’ supply of protective gear during last year’s street battles, and so on.  According to this line of reasoning, without Lai, protesters and their election candidates would fade away.   

Oddly enough, Apple Daily itself was not the target. It rolled off the presses as usual on August 11, and Hong Kongers rushed to buy what they thought would be last-chance souvenir copies. Stacks several feet high disappeared from newsstands for several days running in a demonstration of loyalty that has been flagging for years in favor of digital platforms — which Lai’s media organization has been vigorously promoting to make up for declining newsstand sales.

Officials have used the surgical police strike against him to boast that freedom of the press has not been harmed. The paper continues to publish in the same way. Its defiant editorial line has not changed. The target was only that political group with its foreign connections that did not roll up its operations immediately on July 1.

Photo: Stand News.

But officials have also done everything possible for years to try and force Lai’s publications into bankruptcy by pressuring advertisers with cross-border business interest to keep away.

Lai himself began with nothing and worked his way up from the factory floor. He made his first fortune in the garment industry and by 1989 had become a fierce political partisan. He founded Apple Daily in 1995, just before the 1997 handover, with the aim of becoming a thorn in the side of the new sovereign. The paper has remained as brash and bold as its owner ever since.

The tabloid style and infotainment format are not for everyone — not even for all democrats. Lai could contain his enthusiasm for the new localist trend and the excesses of factionalism it has encouraged, but his paper is the only mainstream publication that has dared to remain openly anti-communist and critical of Beijing. That’s where many were in colonial days, but everyone else had smoothed away the rough edges in their editorial styles well before 1997.

Apple Daily reported extensively on last year’s protests, as it has done for every organized demonstration dating back to 2003, making it the standard bearer for Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Now they are all under siege against a formidable adversary. The next challenge is to survive in an environment that has been tailor-made to destroy them all – just as it did political inclinations similar to theirs in China itself after 1949. 

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.